Calling a spade
Business World, 9 May 2012


The term “culture of impunity” gained currency during the Arroyo administration. To the best of my recollection, it was first used to describe the rampant human rights violations taking place within the country associated with the military (and to a lesser extent, the police). Then, it was also used to describe the slaying of media practitioners, with political warlords suspected to be the masterminds — the Maguindanao Massacre serving as the epitome of such a culture of impunity.

Although PNoy’s campaign platform included a commitment to end this culture of impunity, associating it solely with the Arroyo administration, it has to be recognized that the culture of impunity goes beyond the Arroyo administration. It was alive and well long before Arroyo, and is still very much alive and well under PNoy — if we use the same metric applied during his predecessor’s watch: the number of extrajudicial killings. And unless we do something about it, it will continue to flourish.

Simply put, culture does not emerge overnight, nor can it disappear overnight, whether it is a drug culture, or the culture of impunity.

Let’s make sure we’re on the same page as far as what “culture of impunity” means.

Start with “culture,” and within the context in which we use it, it can be defined as “the customs, arts, social achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group,” or, even better, “the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.”

“Impunity” is defined as “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action” (latin: impunis or “unpunished”).

Put them together, and what culture of impunity means is the attitudes and behavior of a social group who consider themselves exempt from punishment. In other words, how people behave when they think they can get away with it, when they think they will not be held accountable for their actions.

Are the military and the police, and political warlords, the only social groups in the country who think the can get away, figuratively and literally, with murder? Or at least, try to, and for the most part, have succeeded?

For sure, they account for most of the culture of impunity that we deplore, mainly because they are either the ones who bear arms, or control/influence those who do.

From the military, the most recent example of this “culture of impunity” is General Jovito Palparan, who, when he was in a position of authority, allegedly was responsible for a lot of human rights violations (particularly “disappearances,” torture, etc.). Worse, when an attempt was finally made to call him to account, he himself “disappeared” — eluding, so far, the “massive manhunts” conducted by, naturally, the police.

Then there are the mestizos, i.e., military turned politicians — the prime examples being former PMAers like Senators Gringo Honasan and Ping Lacson, associated, respectively, with coup attempts (the most recent of which was Oakwood) and Kuratong Baleleng and the Dacer-Corbito disappearance. Like Palparan, when attempts were made to call them to account, they also performed vanishing acts. They could dish out discipline, but refused to take it. And have indeed gotten away with treating the law with contempt — which shows that the culture of impunity has widespread acceptance.

And then there are the pure politicians. There are former Palawan Governor Joel Reyes and his brother Mario, a mayor, who have so far eluded arrest for the murder of environmentalist Gerry Ortega. And there is Congressman Ruben Ecleo, who was arrested on charges of the murder of his wife only after a pitched battle that left many of his supporters and one police officer dead; who then was allowed to post bail (a measly P1 million), even in the face of the murder of his parents-in-law and two siblings-in-law at the very time the pitched battle was taking place; who was then elected to the current Congress — and lo and behold, was nowhere to be found when he was convicted recently of the charges against him. Jail apparently is only for ordinary mortals.

But wasn’t justice served on Caluan, Laguna Mayor Antonio Sanchez (rape and murder) and Congressman Romeo Jalosjos (statutory rape)? Sanchez may be the exception that probes the rule. But Jalosjos, who was sentenced to two successive life terms (30 years each, if one recalls), got his sentence commuted to 16 years, and then, with time off for good behavior, was freed after 11 years — his living quarters in Muntinglupa reportedly of the most luxurious, plus he was heaped with praises by General Oscar Calderon, who was prison chief.

Are there other examples of the culture of impunity that are not associated with politicians or the military/police? Only consider a lot of supposedly business and social leaders who have so far gotten away with tax murder (as pointed out by our peerless president in last year’s SONA), in the sense of averaging something like P5,000 in tax payments a year. They do it because they can get away with it, although Kim Henares seems to be trying her damnedest to stem the tide.

And what about the Dominguez brothers, who, still in the flush of their youth, were able to brush off at least 27 charges (including the killing of a policeman and the injuring of others) — and even while incarcerated, seem to have a longer arm than that of the law — what with the murders of a businesswoman who had the temerity to file charges against them for carnapping her vehicle, and now the murder of the star witness against them in the crimes for which they are currently awaiting trial? In the case of businesswoman Cristina Roxas, by the way, a “massive manhunt” was called out — with, to date, no results.

And come to think of it: when the DoJ ignores an order of the Supreme Court; when the Comelec filed charges of electoral sabotage against Gloria Arroyo after a hurried meeting; when an RTC judge orders her arrest without even examining the charges; etc. etc., that too is the culture of impunity.

Yes, the culture of impunity flourishes. It is the antithesis of the rule of law.